By Henrique Caine
It was the early 1980s and I was exactly 14 years old living in Brooklyn, New York when one day while coming down the elevator of Patio Gardens apartment building, a sprawling 17 story identical twin brick complex on Flatbush avenue, which was at the time owed by Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump; a lady I had gotten to know from countless elevator rides and small chatter asked me what my plans were that summer. She expressed that she wanted to help me get a summer job at Coney Island Hospital but I needed working papers. But the working papers she was referring to was not immigration working papers (thank God), it was student working papers issued by the High School and all you needed was your social security number which was at least already on hand.
So she guided me in what to do as a student and get my school to issue my Board of Education working papers and then she referred me to Coney Island Hospital where I was hired at the Greenhouse Coffee Shop as a “general helper” which meant I worked the grill, made sandwiches, clean tables, clean the coffee shop and at times was on bathroom duty. Everyone was a “general helper” except for the main Chef. That was my very first job in America making then minimum wage of $3.35 per hour and I was so proud to be working and getting up at 5am to take the D or Q train from Prospect Park station to Brighton Beach or Ocean Parkway to be at work before 7am breakfast.
One day my manager came to me and said he thought I was doing great and that he wanted to promote me to “Coffee Cart Boy” which entailed me stocking up a cart every morning with freshly delivered pastries, breads and donuts, juices and soft drinks and filling the large built-in tea and coffee pots. This was for sale to those who sat in the waiting rooms and other areas of the hospital who would need something to eat, but could not leave the waiting room at risk of missing their names being called (it was a City public run hospital that catered mainly to working class and low income families). I loved the cart duty because it allowed me to meet so many folks working in the hospital including a cute nurse from the Carribean that I admired from a far and was just too gaga over at my young age.
On Wednesdays I parked the cart in the maternity ward outpatient area because that was the day for weekly doctor appointments for expecting mothers. I had so much fun chatting up with pregnant women of all types and they simply adored the 14 years old kid who had their hot pastries and donuts ready and cold juices or hot tea. On Wednesdays, my cart was sold out by 11am and I would have to head back to the coffee shop to restock. I remember one Wednesday I didn’t show up for some reason to the maternity ward and the following week when I did, the women gave me a piece of their minds. “Boy, you have any idea what its like when a pregnant woman wants to eat?” I remember one of them telling me with laughter. Those were fun days.
Then one day (not on my favorite maternity Wednesdays) I was positioned at another regular spot and a Caucasian lady came to my cart to buy coffee. She was so abrasive and harsh in speaking to me I was confused. She literally cursed at me when she asked for something and if I said we didn’t have that item. She kept going on and on and making one degrading comment after another. I was sweating profusely with nervousness, I was confused, I was in shock. She went on and on at one point calling me “damn stupid.” Before I could catch myself I said “No you are stupid not me.” She came back with a vengeance and shouting “what did you call me…what did you say?” In that moment, she took the cup of coffee I had served her moments earlier and wasted it directly on me calling me “nigger” at the same time. It was by God’s grace I was not scolded– perhaps it was the apron that added an extra layer of clothing. I did have pains on my chest. By then eyewitnesses had assembled, people were upset and in disbelieve. I was too shocked and scared to understand what had happened. Someone called the Hospital Police and two officers came to the scene. One officer engaged me and I eventually composed myself to explain my ordeal. Bystanders also provided statements. The lady was asked to remain seated and I remember officers also speaking with her. My boss who was white, was called to the scene and he was visibly upset. He kept consoling me.
A few minutes later after returning to the coffee shop, the police came and asked me if I wanted to press charges and it was my right to do so. All my coworkers were egging me to do so. I told the officers I needed to discuss it with my family. On the train ride back home that afternoon, I knew that no charges would be forthcoming. I didn’t have my immigration papers in order yet and there is no way I was going to be reporting on some white woman who called me a nigger and spilled hot coffee on me at a police station. Definitely not!
I continued my summer job that year and my pregnant women customers were always ecstatic to see me on Wednesdays. Somedays I would often think about that lady and if she ever felt remorse, but over the years she slowly faded into memory as I pursued my life’s ambitions and all that God still has in store for this life!